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Amicrocosm of the new rural China, Zhou Xiaowen’s Ermo parallels Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju. Where Zhang’s peasant heroine explored the perplexities of the bureaucracy, however, Zhou’s discovers the wonders of capitalism.
When first introduced, Ermo (Alia) has nothing more than any other woman in her dusty mountain village—and less than her despised, indolent neighbor, known simply as Fat Woman (Zhang Haiyan). Ermo makes and sells “twisty noodles,” and has spent months weaving baskets for the annual fruit harvest. Though Ermo is blessed with a male heir, Tiger, her young son is frequently at Fat Woman’s house. Much to the dismay of her husband, Fat Woman has no son—but she does have the only TV set in town, an irresistible lure for Tiger.
Ermo’s new life begins with a seeming catastrophe: Because of a poor harvest, the local collective declines to buy her baskets. Fat Woman’s husband—called Blindman, presumably because of his heavy eyelids—offers to take Ermo and her baskets to the local town in the truck that has brought his family prosperity. There she finds that both her baskets and her noodles bring a higher price than in her village, which is just the first of her fiscal revelations.
Ermo begins accompanying Blindman (Liu Peiqi) to town regularly, leaving Tiger in the care of her old, ill, and (as is commonly known in the village) impotent husband (Ge Zhijun), known as Chief because he was once the village head. She gets a job making noodles in a small factory, and when a co-worker loses a hand in the machinery, Ermo makes another astonishing discovery: The local hospital pays for blood. Soon she’s making regular trips to the clinic to sell blood; “women lose it anyway,” she says when this form of capitalization is challenged.
The object of Ermo’s fund-raising drive is the biggest TV in the local store, a 29-incher that will outclass Fat Woman’s and bring Tiger back to the (electronic) hearth. Since she’s spending so much time with Blindman, the prospect of adultery also surfaces. Ermo still has her pride, though; she won’t take money from Blindman, even through circuitous routes.
The rubes of Qiu Ju reportedly got big laughs in urban China, and there are parts of Ermo that such audiences might find uproarious. In one scene, Ermo and Blindman are forced to eat a large lunch prepared by Chief just a short time after Ermo has consented to the extravagance of her first restaurant meal. On one of her many trips to the store to inspect the TV she intends to buy, Ermo fears a malfunction because the people on the screen are speaking in a strange tongue, English. “What language are they speaking?” she demands. “Foreign language,” explains the worldly Blindman.
Western viewers will likely be as heartened as amused by Ermo. As indomitable as any Zhang heroine, she pursues that TV set with a passion few Hollywood heroes can match. She may be a rube, but Ermo’s clearly not going to miss out on anything that free enterprise might promise her remote village.
Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman are not exactly subtle, but their characterizations seem deft compared to those in Pushing Hands, the Taiwan-bred, New York-based director’s first film. A lower-budget effort getting a belated release, this culture-clash fable travels no farther than Manhattan’s Chinatown from its primary location, Yonkers, but it features many familiar elements, notably the old-fashioned father whose wisdom is ignored by the younger generation.
Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) is a retired tai chi master, recently arrived at his son’s suburban home after a hard life in mainland China. Alex (Bo Z. Wang) tries to be respectful, but he’s so busy working at a computer firm that he mostly ignores his father, while Alex’s wife Martha (Deb Snyder) wishes she could; a high-strung writer waiting anxiously for the New York Times‘ review of her first novel, she blames her father-in-law for interrupting the progress on her second book. Only two people seem to appreciate Mr. Chu—his young grandson Jeremy (Haan Lee) and Mrs. Chen (Lai Wang), a cooking instructor at the Chinese-community school where Mr. Chu begins teaching tai chi.
In the first half of the film, Martha reacts peevishly to Mr. Chu’s various transgressions: singing along with Chinese-opera videos, competing with her cooking, putting aluminum-foil-covered dishes in the microwave. Lee’s script (with “additional scenes by” James Schamus) makes this conflict tiresomely one-sided. While Mr. Chu means well, Martha can only think in terms of American covetousness: She wants Alex to buy a bigger house, so she and her word processor can escape altogether from her father-in-law.
Echoing the film’s distaste for the blond, selfish Martha, Mr. Chu moves to Chinatown, leaving no forwarding address. He gets a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant whose owner is even more materialistic than Martha. Mr. Chu turns out not to be a very good dishwasher, but his martial- and healing-arts abilities win him the respect of his co-workers and neighbors, who now include Mrs. Chen. (She’s fled her daughter, who’s apparently as disconnected from traditional culture as Alex, creating the possibility of senior-citizen romance, a Lee ideal.)
Unlike in Lee’s other films, where miscommunication hides the elders’ virtues, Hands makes it clear that Chu is the coolest guy around. Aside from one exuberant moment, when he uses the tai chi move that provides the film’s title to hurl a fat guy into a table full of dumplings, Chu is a model of maturity and equanimity. (He turns boyish because he’s trying to impress Mrs. Chen, of course.) There seems to be no reason why Alex and Martha shouldn’t just turn their household over to him. Since Lee presents only one character with a credible point of view, the familial complications seem both more contrived and less entertaining than in his other films. What really distinguishes Hands from the work that followed is not its smallness but its narrowness.
The original Japanese title of The Mystery of Rampo was simply Rampo, so don’t blame the filmmakers when nothing resembling a traditional Western mystery develops. This stylish exercise is more like a cross between an inexplicable Japanese ghost story and Alain Resnais’ mordant tour of a writer’s consciousness, Providence. Unfortunately, the inexplicability wins out, leaving Rampo with little but visual appeal.
That appeal, however, is nearly enough to sustain the film, which was a major box-office success at home. A Japanese version of a surrealist pictorial feast, Rampo opens with newsreel footage and animation, both of which it soon abandons for trippy slo-mo, erotically charged tableaux, and eerie dream sequences.
Edogawa Rampo (Naoto Takenaka) was a mystery writer in pre-World War II Japan, a period in which fervent nationalism coexisted with an intense emulation of European technology and style. As Wim Wenders did in Hammet, director Kazuyoshi Okuyama (who wrote the script with Yuhei Enoki) conflates story and storyteller, blurring the distinction between the writer and his detective hero, Akechi (Masahiro Motoki)—most blatantly in a shot where Akechi casts Rampo’s reflection in a mirror.
Rampo, who lives and dresses in a traditional Japanese manner, is fascinated when he hears of a woman who has murdered her husband the same way a character in one of his stories did. Shizuko (Michiko Hada) could not have read the story, since it’s been banned by the authorities, but Rampo wants to meet her nonetheless. Soon, Shizuko is the mistress of a rich, decadent marquis—whose idiosyncrasies include the smoking of mandrake pollen—and the Westernized, earring-wearing Akechi has arrived (by parachute) at their lavish country house to investigate them.
The marquis’s estate and lifestyle are as Europeanized as the film’s hauntingly mournful score, written by Japanese composer Akira Senju but recorded by Czech musicians in Prague. The connection between late-19th-century French decadence and the Japanese tradition of kinky negation proves solid; there are scenes here that suggest the Yukio Mishima fantasies that Paul Schrader dramatized in Mishima, notably one in which the cross-dressing count projects film of a naked, bound woman onto the naked, bound Shizuko.
Such sequences are attention-getting, but ultimately Rampo shares a crucial failing of much Japanimation: Okuyama hasn’t thought through the film’s weird premise, and so tries to cover its lack of a narrative payoff with a cataclysmic finish. Blame it on Buddhism or Hiroshima, but this is simply the latest Japanese popular entertainment to end with a fantasia of cleansing destruction. It’s visually striking, but it fails to deliver on the film’s initial promise to provide something for the mind as well as for the eye.